Neither remembers the exact date they went on the air together, but this month marks 20 years of Philadelphia radio raunch for WMMR hosts Preston Elliot and Steve Morrison. After two decades of live radio, maybe some memory loss is to be expected.
Known better collectively by the title of their show Preston & Steve, Elliot, 50, and Morrison, 58, officially began their careers together in May 1998 at Y100 as Preston, Marilyn & Steve alongside former co-host Marilyn Russell, who is now on mornings at WOGL. By May 2005, the guys had taken their antics to WMMR, where they occupy the 5:30-10:30 a.m. slot, joined by Casey Foster, Kathy Romano, Marisa Magnatta, and Nick McIlwain.
Today, Elliot and Morrison dominate the radio ratings. In the winter, Preston & Steve finished first in the market among men ages 25-54, beating out second-place WIP's Angelo Cataldi by a wide margin. Their annual Campout for Hunger charity event raised more than $270,000 and collected 839 tons of food last year. The pair made it through WMMR's ownership change from Greater Media to current parent company Beasley Broadcast Group in 2016, and their 20th anniversary coincides with the station's 50th.
"If you walk up and down the halls [of WMMR], you can see the history of the radio station," Elliot, a native of St. Louis, Mo., says. "I see all these people I never met but have heard about. My name is up there too, and I think it's pretty f— cool, man."
None if it, however, would have happened without an on-air introduction in the mid-'90s at WDRE. Elliot was hosting an afternoon show, and Morrison, a New York native, would do live spots from Manayunk's River Deck Cafe, as well as commercials. Every few hours on Fridays, Elliot would check in with Morrison, and the two developed a rapport a month before ever meeting in person. They were paired together as hosts and lasted until WDRE changed formats in 1996.
"Every Friday, I would say, 'This is the biggest party night of the year,' " Morrison says. "The rest is history."
Elliot and Morrison spoke with the Inquirer last month ahead of their 20th anniversary about their on-air milestone, why they stuck around at MMR so long, and whether we can ever expect them to hang up their headphones.
Steve Morrison: I'm the closest, so I'm here about 4:30 or 5. My drive is about 8 minutes. That's my ritual; 'Here is my protein bar, my water.' Ritual in what we do is incredibly important. If you show up and your headphones don't sound the way you're used to, it's like, 'Son of a…'
Preston Elliot: I try to play host as far as directing people. Over the years, you develop a system. We raise hands, and somebody's got to direct who is going to be next. I move linearly and Steve comes in from the side. If we were porn, Steve would be the money shot.
SM: We're curious about things, and with that comes a sharp humor that can also be very infantile. But we know it. The show is us and the entire listening audience in a car going to work in the morning talking. It should have that sense of informality about it.
SM: These people have given us lives and livelihoods and memories, and our families have been raised. All of this due to people doing the kind gesture of tuning in in the morning. That people would do that is humbling, and here we are. That's why we'll never phone it in
PE: Our boss, Jim [McGuinn, formerly of Y100] did a yearly assessment to see where our heads were. I said, 'I want to be like Pierre Robert.' With Pierre, whether you listen to him or not, you certainly know who he is. Several years later, I saw Jim after he had gone away and come back, and he's like, 'Look what happened. You did it.'
SM: The importance of Pierre Robert cannot be overstated as far as coming to 'MMR. Pierre would break ranks and come support events when we were at Y100. Pierre is the real deal. When we came here, he basically said, 'I like these guys,' and he took the faithful here — he calls it the 'papal blessing' — and it worked. For God's sake, Pierre is just the best.
PE: Steve and I made a business pact together. We thought, 'You know what? You and me, identical contracts.' We have the same agent, so it's down to the number and letter. Any time we speak to our agent, it's a three-way call. We speak freely about business matters, so there is nothing to hide and there is no jealousy. It's perfect that way.
SM: It sounds self-serving to say, 'We don't have egos.' But we want to do good radio and entertain people. When people start to buy their own stuff, or aren't grateful, or get into fights over contracts, that's when it collapses.
PE: It's a little bit of everything. Twenty years on, we're not getting together three times a week to go to dinner or lunch and stuff like that. I treasure what the six of us have because there's no one else in the world that I have a relationship like that with. Years and years from now when it's all said and done, I'm going to miss what we have with each other because I have had some of the most fun conversations of my life in that room.
SM: Casey and Preston are more similar than are we, but who am I bonded to more outside my wife? We owe each other for our existence for the last 20 years. It's good that we're not the same person. It's hard to explain to somebody if they don't have that because it can't be overly frivolous the way other friendships can be. I look at the Justice League poster, and I'm like, 'That's us.'
PE: Because they wanted to pay us. No, I mean, when we finally landed here, we obviously knew what a big deal 'MMR was. They are playing current rock music still, and it's the longest-lasting rock radio station in the United States. How f— cool is that? I think that's one of the reasons, maybe. We love what this station represents.
SM: Over the course of my life, I've felt betrayed by radio stations when they change formats because it's like, 'This audience doesn't matter to us.' 'MMR has not done that for 50 years. There are points in time when you're standing in the tent of the Camp Out for Hunger, and there are hundreds of people and a band performing, where you're like, 'Can you believe this?'
SM: It has had some lean and mean years. Pierre [Robert] says that when we came, it started a new era at the station. I'll just say it's a nice confluence of events.
PE: 'MMR is a lot like the people of Philadelphia: They're creatures of habit. You're born here, you grow up here, you stay here, you have kids that are born here and stay here and have a family. 'MMR is the same way. It's this titan that just stays the course and keeps cranking it out.
PE: We have no long-term goals. People ask us if we want to syndicate from time to time. Nah. We want to roll out our careers here. We want the career to continue, and, eventually, let the show run its course — hopefully by our own decision. We plan on going until we're done going.